On the Sublime & Beautiful, Part I: Section 12 – Edmund Burke

On the Sublime & Beautiful, Part I: Section 12

Magnificence

Magnificence is likewise a source of the sublime. A great profusion of things, which are splendid or valuable in themselves, is magnificent. The starry heaven, though it occurs so very frequently to our view, never fails to excite an idea of grandeur. This cannot be owing to the stars themselves, separately considered. The number is certainly the cause. The apparent disorder augments the grandeur, for the appearance of care is highly contrary to our idea of magnificence. Besides, the stars lie in such apparent confusion, as makes it impossible on ordinary occasions to reckon them. This gives them the advantage of a sort of infinity. In works of art, this kind of grandeur, which consists in multitude, is to be very courteously admitted; because a profusion of excellent things is not to be attained, or with too much difficulty; and because in many cases this splendid confusion would destroy all use, which should be attended to in most of the works of art with the greatest care; besides, it is to be considered, that unless you can produce an appearance of infinity by your disorder, you will have disorder only without magnificence. There are, however, a sort of fireworks, and some other things, that in this way succeed well, and are truly grand. There are also many descriptions in the poets and orators, which owe their sublimity to a richness and profusion of images, in which the mind is so dazzled as to make it impossible to attend to that exact coherence and agreement of the allusions, which we should require on every other occasion. I do not now remember a more striking example of this, than the description which is given of the king’s army in the play of Henry the Fourth:

               —All furnished, all in arms,
All plumed like ostriches that with the wind
Baited like eagles having lately bathed:
As full of spirit as the month of May,
And gorgeous as the sun in Midsummer,
Wanton as youthful goats, wild as young bulls.
I saw young Harry with his beaver on
Rise from the ground like feathered Mercury;
And vaulted with such ease into his seat,
As if an angel dropp’d down from the clouds
To turn and wind a fiery Pegasus.

In that excellent book, so remarkable for the vivacity of its descriptions as well as the solidity and penetration of its sentences, the Wisdom of the Son of Sirach, there is a noble panegyric on the high priest Simon the son of Onias; and it is a very fine example of the point before us:

How was he honoured in the midst of the people, in his coming out of the sanctuary! He was as the morning star in the midst of a cloud, and as the moon at the full; as the sun shining upon the temple of the Most High, and as the rainbow giving light in the bright clouds: and as the flower of roses in the spring of the year, as lilies by the rivers of waters, and as the frankincense tree in summer; as fire and incense in the censer, and as a vessel of gold set with precious stones; as a fair olive tree budding forth fruit, and as a cypress which groweth up to the clouds. When he put on the robe of honour, and was clothed with the perfection of glory, when he went up to the holy altar, he made the garment of holiness honourable. He himself stood by the hearth of the altar, compassed with his brethren round about; as a young cedar in Libanus, and as palm trees compassed they him about. So were all the sons of Aaron in their glory, and the oblations of the Lord in their hands.  

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Edmund Burke

A  Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of The Sublime and Beautiful (1757, with several other additions) by a teenage Edmund Burke (1729-1797) is pure philosphical work by a towering intellect that would later throw itself into oration, political and social theory and grander philosophy.

I first read this semenal work in junior high school and have cherished it ever since. It is on the long list of books that will one day fill my mammoth library.

As for Burke himself he seems to have towered like an English Oak over so many ferns of his day. Brilliant, curious, balanced, thorough, given to details, as much in love with excellence as with empathy—Edmund Burke is one of those people who brings so much to the table you are fool if you do not accept the invitation, sit down, and dine at the banquet of a great mind.

An excerpt from Burke’s 1774 speech on the matter of the brewing American Revolution:

Again and again, revert to your old principles—seek peace and ensue it; leave America, if she has taxable matter in her, to tax herself. I am not here going into the distinctions of rights, nor attempting to mark their boundaries. I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions; I hate the very sound of them. Leave the Americans as they anciently stood, and these distinctions, born of our unhappy contest, will die along with it…. Be content to bind America by laws of trade; you have always done it…. Do not burthen them with taxes…. But if intemperately, unwisely, fatally, you sophisticate and poison the very source of government by urging subtle deductions, and consequences odious to those you govern, from the unlimited and illimitable nature of supreme sovereignty, you will teach them by these means to call that sovereignty itself in question…. If that sovereignty and their freedom cannot be reconciled, which will they take? They will cast your sovereignty in your face. No body of men will be argued into slavery. Sir, let the gentlemen on the other side…tell me, what one character of liberty the Americans have, and what one brand of slavery they are free from, if they are bound in their property and industry by all the restraints you can imagine on commerce, and at the same time are made pack-horses of every tax you choose to impose, without the least share in granting them. When they bear the burthens of unlimited monopoly, will you bring them to bear the burthens of unlimited revenue too? The Englishman in America will feel that this is slavery; that it is legal slavery, will be no compensation either to his feelings or t his understandings.

The entire treatise can be enjoyed here at Bartleby’s Online Bookstore, in the Harvard Classics, Vol. 24, Part 2:

http://www.bartleby.com/24/2/